Who Is a “Terrorist”?

The U.S. drone program is unmistakably utilized as a tactic against “terrorism,” with officials in both the Bush and Obama Administrations consistently employing the term in speeches, memorandums, and government reports on national security and the “war on terror.” However, in the time since the Obama Administration openly acknowledged the existence of the program, its officials have been careful to publicly define the “enemy” in the current conflict to be al Qaedaand its associated forces—and certainly more restrained than the rhetoric employed by the Bush Administration. Still, President Obama and his representatives continue to refer to “terrorism,” “terrorists,” and “terrorist threats” and expand their scope far beyond the “core” of al Qaeda in the AfPak region, which analysts say is currently all but destroyed. To whom exactly are those officials referring when they describe the terrorists who threaten the United States? Remember the clichéd phrase, “one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter.” A decade on from 9/11, there is still little agreement—domestically or internationally—on what the definition of terrorism is and who can be objectively described as a terrorist. The term’s subjective and usually pejorative use makes it difficult to employ in any type of legal standard, further complicating efforts to better define the scope of the right to kill.

Defining “terrorism”

What may come as a surprise to many is that there is no universally accepted definition for the word “terrorism.” Even the United States Government cannot agree on one. The Department of Defense defines terrorism as follows: “the calculated use of unlawful violence or threat of unlawful violence to inculcate fear; intended to coerce or to intimidate governments or societies in pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious, or ideological.” However, the State Department focuses on the political nature of terrorism and specifies that only non-state actors may commit terrorist acts. The FBI includes property as a legitimate target of terrorism and highlights the illegality of terrorism as a violation of criminal code. The international community of UN Member States has never agreed on a definition, in part because of concerns over separating terrorism from a non-state entity’s fight for self-determination. Academics are no more successful in defining terrorism. In the 1980s, terrorism researcher and professor Alex Schmid examined over 100 definitions offered by various scholars, and post-9/11 that number can only have grown. There are common elements in every definition—violence, fear, coercion—but the differences also reflect the varying agendas of each entity and remind us that what constitutes terrorism can be highly subjective.

The implications of an ambiguous definition of terrorism

In the global war on terror (even if it is not officially called that anymore), there is often the perception that anyone labeled a “terrorist” could potentially be a target for extrajudicial killing, and this of course raises several critical concerns. Among them are the issues of subjectivity discussed above, which have both present and future consequences. Citing a study by the New America Foundation, Jane Mayer of the New Yorker notes that only six of the 41 drone strikesconducted by the Obama Administration through mid-2009 in Pakistan targeted al Qaeda members. Eighteen were directed at Pakistani Taliban targets, many of whom were low-level militants. Pakistan’s Taliban (aka Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan) is fundamentally distinct from the Afghan Taliban; the Pakistani Taliban almost exclusively attacks targets in Pakistan as they consider themselves to be engaged in battle with the Pakistani State. Members of the Pakistani Taliban are violent Islamist extremists and engage in terrorist attacks, but their primary enemy is the State of Pakistan although they still undermine U.S. interests indirectly (the group was designated a foreign terrorist organization by the State Department in 2010). How can members of the Pakistani Taliban be considered legitimate targets for U.S. drone strikes if they are not “our terrorists”? The U.S. may risk being dragged into fundamentally internal conflicts in its pursuit of “terrorists.”

A potential longer term consequence of a war on “terrorism” is what may happen if we do not agree with another state’s classification of its terrorists. For example, many countries call their political dissidents “terrorists.” Would a government that could not otherwise arrest a dissident or separatist in its own territory retain the right to strike at an individual merely because it deems him to be a terrorist who poses a perceived security threat? This question may also be extended a step further—what if the “terrorist” is in another territory, and that state is unwilling to apprehend that individual because it disagrees that he is a “terrorist”? Could the first state launch a drone strike into the second without violating its sovereignty because it could argue that the first was “unable” or “unwilling” to detain a person or group it considered to be “terrorists”? The subjective nature of the term “terrorism” means it is often invoked for rhetorical purposes as much as it is used accurately, but its ambiguous definition has serious implications when it can be used to justify lethal operations in a variety of circumstances.